Remembering Dr. Stephen Levin

Saying someone is a hero and a lifesaver, lauding their invaluable and extraordinary contributions to the world, can often be hyperbole. But in the case of Dr. Stephen Levin (Oct. 16, 1941- February 8, 2012) who fought for his patients’ lives as a physician and activist, and fought for change on both a cellular and a political  level, it’s simply a statement of fact.

I first met Steve Levin at the New York City office of Kinderland, a progressive summer camp focused on social justice. I grew up going to Kinderland, and was there for my interview to be a Counselor in Training (CIT). Steve was there, waiting for his own daughter — who had never been to Kinderland — to finish her own CIT interview.  In a way, Steve’s bringing his daughter Kate to that interview and that camp is a metaphor for what he did for so many people in his life; introducing them to interesting and important ideas, places and values.

Steve brought his daughter to what turned out to be a healthy and happy place for her, just as he brought so many people, friends and patients to happier and healthier states.  We started talking, and I liked him immediately; he was warm, engaged and engaging. He had a soothing, animated, deep voice and bright, sad brown eyes. He was excited and nervous about his daughter’s first time in camp and when she came out of the interview, his face lit up — Kate has this effect on him — and he enthusiastically introduced us, eager for his newbie daughter to meet an experienced Kinderlander. When they left I hoped and suspected that I’d see them again. And I did; Kate and I became CITs that summer and, more importantly, good friends. I was 15 when I met Steve. And that was 15 years ago. Half a life ago. I’ve known Steve for half of my life.

Steve Levin was the Medical Director of the Mount Sinai Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine, a Professor of Occupational Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and the Co-Director of the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program. What is Occupational medicine, you may be asking. In a speech he delivered accepting an award for occupational medicine, Steve described it as

“work that combines clinical medicine, research, and advocacy for people who need the assistance of health professionals to obtain some measure of justice and health care for illnesses they suffer as a result of companies pursuing the biggest profits they can make, no matter what the effect on workers or the communities they operate in.”

But this was not the trajectory Steve always had in mind. Born and raised in Philadelphia to working class parents — his father a carpenter, his mother a hospital worker — and a graduate of Wesleyan University and the New York University School of Medicine, Steve planned to become a rich doctor, a heart surgeon to the stars.

When he received the Collegium Ramazzini’s Irving J. Selikoff Memorial Award, Steve attributed his transformation to his friendship with a member of the Young Lords (YLO), a Puerto Rican civil rights group, who exposed Steve to ”the conditions some people in East Harlem had to live in. Frozen cascades of water from leaking pipes running down the stairs; old folks huddled under blankets for warmth in freezing apartments. I had never seen anything like this.” Steve started working with the Young Lords,

“and it changed what I wanted to do with my life. The more I learned about the causes of the social and economic inequalities in this country and the rest of the world, the more I felt I had to try to be part of changing the conditions people face, in my town, in my country, so that the majority of the people in the world, who work hard just to maintain a life of basics, or are poor and at the margins, could live in security and peace and do all the good things people are capable of together when they’re not made miserable.”

Steve began to believe that “if people were active in large numbers, through a host of different expressions of their opinions and ideas, things could change. I felt that somehow I wanted to combine the real satisfaction of taking care of patients and being involved in helping people get organized in their own interests.”

So, instead of chasing the easy life, Steve became a family doctor to the not-so-rich and not so famous in the factory town of Pottstown, Pennsylvania. He charged his patients what they could afford: $2 for workers, $7 for management. He also worked with community organizers fighting against racial discrimination in the educational system, worked as a doctor in the state prison and ran the town’s Planned Parenthood clinic. Steve worked with members of the United Rubber Workers, who worked in a plant removing vinyl chloride. When management refused to provide the workers with respirators, a group of plant workers organized a protest, which Steve supported, that led to shut down of the plant. Three days later, respirators were provided. Steve considered this experience “eye opening.” He realized that, “science and facts alone don’t always change what happens to people, but when people use these facts in combination with political means, big changes can result, in this case definitely changing health and safety conditions on the job.”

Steve had started practicing occupational medicine, before he even knew the field existed. He returned to New York and got the last residency slot in occupational medicine at Mount Sinai, where he would practice medicine and teach for the rest of his life.

In the 1990s, Steve helped ensure that federal and New York State authorities required the provision of respirators and vacuum hoses to protect bridge workers from lead poisoning. In 2000 and 2004, Steve’s research and testimony helped convict contractor Joseph Thorn and father and son Alexander and Raul Salvagno, owners of asbestos abatement companies in New York. Both Thorn and the Salagnos sentenced workers to lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis by forcing them to use illegal and unsafe asbestos removal techniques without proper protection. The Salvagnos secretly co-owned a lab that produced 75,000 fraudulent laboratory analysis results on asbestos levels. Steve was one of the two primary investigators for a project on asbestos exposure among electrical power generation workers in Puerto Rico.

Steve was also the primary investigator for a project on Libby, Montana, a mining town where thousands of workers and residents had been exposed to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite ore: “Working with the docs and the other health professionals in Libby who for years have been fighting for resources to take care of those who are ill and to get the contaminated town cleaned up has been one of the most satisfying areas of work I’ve been able to do.”

Steve’s work as an advocate and physician for World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers is another part of his legacy. Steve and his colleagues started planning what would become the clinic for WTC workers just days after 9/11. Ninety percent of the 10,116 firefighters and other responders reported an acute cough within the first 48 hours, as a study the clinic put out three years later would document. In 2006, Steve recalled,

“When we heard Christie Todd Whitman get on TV and say that the air quality was safe we were horrified because we already knew that there were people being exposed to high burdens of irritants down there and that people were already suffering respiratory problems, so we knew that it couldn’t possibly be safe. It had terrible consequences.”

In 2003, Steve couldn’t be sure about the future numbers or rates of disease: “I’m not saying we’ll see a huge wave of cancers in 20 years, but I know the rate won’t be zero.” But Steve was certain that action had to be taken immediately: “The point is not to count statistics, but to plug the people who need it into care and to detect the diseases as early as possible, when we still might have a shot at curing them.” Levin was not afraid to highlight how the EPA lied and endangered the health and lives of the recue and recovery workers: ”For too many of these men and women, the EPA’s false reassurance that the air quality in lower Manhattan was safe led to their being exposed to much more than they otherwise would have been. Many people did not wear the respiratory protection that they really needed.” The clinic, which received more than $12 million from the government, has already screened and treated more than 20,000 workers, and released over a dozen studies. One 2006 study showed that approximately 30% of the patients screened (at that point, 12,000) suffered from chronic asthma and bronchitis, and 17% suffered from PTSD and depression.

Upon learning of Steve’s death, Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) reflected on the large role he played in the passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. “Without Dr. Levin’s pioneering research, service, and dedication to 9/11 responders, volunteers, and survivors, we may never have passed the Zadroga Act.” The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) called Steve

“an advocate for health of workers in the broadest sense. He devoted his life and extraordinary talents not only to ensuring that workers who contracted occupational diseases got the best possible treatment, but to preventing workers from being exposed to the conditions that caused the illnesses. He saw the fight for higher wages, better working conditions shorter hours, education, transportation and housing as part of the struggle for the health of the working class as a whole.”

In their editorial “The Good Doctor” The Daily News called Steve “a doctor who had superbly served his patients, his city and his country.” The transit Workers Union stated,

“All New York City workers owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Stephen Levin, a trained occupational medical physician at Mt. Sinai Hospital, whether they know it or not. But one very special group of workers – those including 3,000 transit workers who responded to Ground Zero – does know him well. He played a key role in exposing and understanding the deadly toxins that swirled around us on 9/11 and in the days following….Steve understood that a physician’s work does not stop at a diagnosis and a treatment plan. He fully supported our members in their sometimes life-and-death struggle for workers’ compensation, pension benefits, and for their World Trade Center benefit. Often alone, he stood with us.”

From San Juan, Puerto Rico, Ricardo Santos Ramos of the Electric Industry Union Workers (UTIER)  said “The workers  of Puerto Rico and of the world have lost a great ally. For UTIER, Dr. Levin, an honorary member of our organization, was a great help in our struggle for workers’ safety.”

The responses to Steve’s passing reveal not just his political side, but his personal side. Those of us who knew him and know him, know that the world lost not only an incredible activist, organizer, thinker, doctor and advocate, but an incredible person, friend, husband, father, brother, son, and mensch.

Santos Ramos also said “We have lost a great friend, a brother…. We will always remember Stephen, along with his colleague Doctor Irving Selikoff, also deceased, as doctors of the workers, of the humble and we will have to honor them by fighting for the living.

The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) put together this video the same day he died.

The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health reflected,

“We were honored to have known Steve; to have been able to call him a friend. We will miss his impact in the fight for safer workplaces, but will also miss his counsel, his wonderful sense of humor, his ability to work with people from different backgrounds — hospital administrators, union officials, rank and file workers and community residents — to build. His passing is a painful loss. He will be greatly missed.”

Steve would have no time for these words, however. When the New York Times asked Steve’s wife Robin Dintiman how he had responded to the passage of the Zadroga bill, she said, “he was too much of a nose-to-the-grindstone guy to be relishing that accomplishment. He just moved on to the next battle for working guys.”

Even Facing his own cancer and death, Steve was relentless in his fight for medical justice. Robin explained to me how only a few months ago, “he had nine union guys over to the house to talk about a tissue bank project and the next day he was in the hospital with a 104 temperature. He was just trying to square things off,” ensuring that the project would continue on without him. Given that “less than six medical schools offer residencies in occupational medicine,” said Robin, and that “this health care system is more and more about making money… his concern was about how to get young people to understand and have compassion for and devote their lives to the lives or workers, to public health and occupational medicine.” Steve was already thinking about how his death could bring attention and resources to occupational medicine: “We discussed it before he passed and he wants to get the mileage out of his death to solidify this as an important part of medicine.” The family and Mount Sinai hope to establish a scholarship in Steve’s name to generate interest in occupational medicine.

Steve’s daughter Kate said, “My dad will live on not only through the work he did, but through the daily example he set for how to live. It was in his nature to love and respect other people, and he tried to do right by others in every interaction, from everyday conversations to larger struggles for justice.”

Though those of us who knew Steve feel honored and lucky,  he considered himself lucky to have had the opportunity to do the work he did. Wrapping up his speech accepting the Irving J. Selikoff Memorial Award, Steve said,  “Let me finish by expressing my gratitude….for this award, but maybe even more for the opportunity to do work that has been and continues to be so satisfying, and for the opportunity to work with so many good, socially conscious friends and colleagues……   and  get paid for it. Nothing, it seems to me, could be luckier than that.” Perhaps the only thing luckier than that was loving and being loved by his amazing family: his wife Robin, his sons Jonathan, Joey and David and his daughter Kate.

Once, when Steve was over, my uncle made a political point Steve heartily agreed with. He pointed his finger at both my uncle and the accuracy of the remark and said “yeah.” We coined that the SLFP (the Steve Levinian Finger Point). It was an act of testimony, affirmation, and support. It was a connection, an atheist’s “amen.” His daughter and I would SLFP at each other frequently. After Steve died, I was thrilled to come across a video featuring the SLFP. So, Steve, here’s a SLFP right back at you.

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